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  • Gabrielle Morreale

Emotional Eating



By: Abby Emmert


When I typed in “Emotional Eating” to a search engine, I got advertisements for Noom and their tagline to “Stop stress eating today!” I also got the National Eating Disorder Association website, so it must be one of their key words. It came up with the Mayo Clinics page for “Weight loss: Gain control of emotional eating” and a plethora of other psychology pages advertising 3 or more tips to stop emotional eating today! As an eating disorder therapist, I can look at those search results and see the bullshit spewing from the page. However, if these results caught me in my eating disorder, I would have believed anything that told me it could help. What I know now is that this is all, like I said, bullshit!


I'll pick apart these results to show you why. Noom we know is a diet and disordered eating program disguised by health and wellness marketing. Everything from their program is based on making you fall back into the diet mentality, and most people leave the program with more problems that they went in with. They have no room to offer advice or help on anything in this field. Thank you, next. The National Eating Disorder Association website is an incredibly important resource, and if you are struggling with an eating disorder or are not sure if you are, they are an amazing place to go to for information. The problem I have with this is that emotional eating is clearly a key word they associated so that those that type it in are brought to this page. Does this mean that emotional eating is an eating disorder? Does it mean you have a problem? If I was looking for help on emotional eating and I was brought to their page not knowing better, would I immediately believe that my behaviors are problematic then? We’ll address this further down. Now to the Mayo Clinic. Weight loss and emotional eating should never be in the same sentence. They are not even related, and shouldn’t be treated like they are either. This is, again, super problematic! I could continue but I think you get the jist.


Emotional eating has a bad connotation in that we believe that someone that participates in it has no control over their emotions and is too weak to find another “healthier” outlet. Our society or diet culture also makes us believe that emotional eating is the problem and there are “tips” that one can just pick up to change this. The truth is, eating based on or to soothe your emotions is not a bad thing at all. In fact, it can be an extremely helpful way to deal with emotions. Food is supposed to be enjoyed. It's supposed to bring happiness and peace. It has the healing power to help increase our moods when we are sad or bring us together and connect in moments of isolation. Food is more often than not associated with emotions! Why are we acting like this is a problem!

Now, if eating to soothe your emotions is the ONLY coping skill you have that supports you when you are struggling, we may want to increase your options to rely on so you are left with more than just one. But does this mean that eating in response to emotions is bad? No. Absolutely not. It’s actually very normal. There is another part of this that is important to discuss, and that is that emotional eating does exist on a spectrum.


The first stage of emotional eating occurs for sensory gratification. Like we said above, food is supposed to be pleasurable and enjoyable! It should spark joy! If you rely on it for this reason, that's not problematic! Next is for pure comfort. Maybe you rely on it as a means of comfort or nurture when you need it. A warm cup of coffee can soothe the morning jitters, or a plate of hot pancakes can bring back memories of family breakfasts that you are longing for! Whatever it is that you are looking for, this is also completely normal. After comfort we have distraction. Sometimes we struggle with sitting with our emotions and we look to food as a distraction from this. This is also completely normal, and how we would work with this in therapy is understanding which emotions you are avoiding and how we can process them in comfortable ways. The fourth stop on this spectrum is sedation. We may use food as a way to numb the emotions we cannot deal with or do not want to challenge. This may be the stage that most people struggle with and seek help in. Once we use food as a way to numb, we struggle to feel as though we have a healthy relationship with food. It is also much easier to slip into the final stage of emotional eating which is using it as punishment. In this stage of the spectrum, we feel as though we deserve the pain of eating or using food as a way to punish ourselves for what we have done. This is one of the hardest aspects of emotional eating to treat, but is very possible!


The main point from this is to understand that emotional eating is not a bad thing. Depending on how you are using food with your emotions, there may be a more positive and beneficial coping skill, but emotional eating itself is not the problem. It most likely means there are some difficult emotions that you have not developed skills yet to deal with! And that's okay! But please know- there is nothing wrong with you and you have not doing anything wrong. You are actually a fighter- trying to find ways to soothe the emotions that you have rather than letting the tear you down! We see you and we are here to help if you need us!!!